WHAT'S WRONG WITH SPONGES? EVERYTHING.
A sponge is a cleaning tool made of soft, light, absorbent porous material, be it petroleum, vegetal or animal based. It is also one of the most frequently disposed of home accessories.
Why are sponges so wasteful?
Unrelated to what they are made of, their permeable structure, advantageous when it comes to cleaning and scrubbing, unfortunately also becomes an ideal environment for the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi, especially when it is allowed to remain wet between uses. A recent scientific study concluded that on average there are 362 different types of bacteria in a kitchen sponge, which is more than typically found in the toilet. The researchers also found that sponges that the sponge owners claimed were regularly cleaned, be it with bleach, in the dishwasher or with hot water, did not contain fewer bacteria than the uncleaned ones. This is why the most common advice is to change out your sponge at least every couple of weeks, if not weekly. Well, this is surely a salubrious move to keep your kitchen safe and spotless, but the mountains of landfill waste it will create will not have a chance to go away in your lifetime.
And it is not just the landfill waste we should be concerned about
The most commonly used sponges nowadays are the cheap synthetic ones, essentially made from petroleum-based plastics.
What do we know about synthetic sponges?
They come in all kinds of colours, which means that there are synthetic dyes involved in their manufacturing process. And the downside of these is that they can end up in our wastewaters.
In most cases, synthetic sponges also have an abrasive side, made once again by blending oil-based nylon and polyester fibres. These are then glued together through a thermal process with non-biodegradable moisture cured polyurethane glue.
If, in good faith, you decide to go antibacterial, add to it a treatment with triclosan, an antimicrobial agent and pesticide toxic to ingest and equally harmful to our marine life, that has been linked to cancer, developmental toxicity and skin irritation.
Finally, there is bleach used to remove dirt and impurities before wrapping the sponges into that non-recyclable thin plastic foil packaging.
Now, just imagine the cocktail of dyes, micro particles, glues and pesticides being rubbed and scrubbed right onto our plates, glasses and cutlery every time you feel so good about cleaning them.
Are vegetal sponges any better?
You might have learned that the usually slightly more expensive vegetal sponges are much better. Well, the good news is that they biodegrade, thanks to being made of natural materials, such as cellulose derived from a combination of wood pulp, sodium sulphate and hemp fibre, and they indeed go through a less toxic manufacturing process. However, the bad news is that still, there are other materials involved in their production, such as chemical softeners, which break the cellulose down into the proper consistency, as well as bleach, and dye, leaving this option far from perfection.
And what about natural sea sponges?
Next in line on the eco scale are the so called sea sponges, consisting of the fibrous skeleton of one of the simplest animal organisms living attached to rocks on the sea bed. These have been harvested into string bags by sponge-divers since ancient times in the Mediterranean region. Their advantage is that they are simply washed and naturally dried in the sun several times before becoming ready for sale. However, they are slow growing and since they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, some of them may take hundreds of years to reach full size. So even though sea sponges are truly natural and much more ecological, there are also concerns about collecting them, as even though the organisms will re-grow if they are harvested correctly, the delicate ecosystems where they live can still be disturbed by human activity.
But is there a better way?
Of course! There are plenty of alternatives that are not only more ecological and hygienic, but also cheaper in the long run than continually buying new sponges. Up to you to choose which one do you feel most comfortable with to suit your needs:
Just like back in the old days, your bare hands may be a great alternative if you do not have sensitive skin and use an all-natural organic detergent or simply baking soda to remove fat and sugar sand for scrubbing.
A natural plant-based vegan sponge, most commonly used while showering, to eliminate dead skin cells, enhance blood circulation and exfoliate skin. However, it may also serve you in the kitchen and just as well as a regular sponge. Its only downside is that due to its porous structure, it may also harbour harmful bacteria in its tiny holes and will need to be thrown away every, or every other week, not such a huge issue, given it is compostable.
Plastic free dish brush
Brushes have great dirt scrubbing properties and are great for washing pots and pans. Their advantage to sponges is that they last longer and are more hygienic. Because they do not have a porous structure, they dry faster when not used and are thus more immune to the accumulation of harmful bacteria. However, in order to avoid landfill waste, pay special attention to choose a brush made of renewable materials, such as a bamboo or a wooden body and natural plant-based hemp or coconut bristles.
Unsponge or handmade sponge
An unsponge is a reusable sponge, often handmade from upcycled materials, such as rests of terry cloth and cotton, that might otherwise be thrown away. To keep it clean, you will only need to wash it about once a week, ideally on a hot cycle along with your dishcloths and towels, and let them dry in the sun afterwards, as it has the effect of killing off bacteria that might still be on the surface after washing. That’s it.
The traditional Japanese scrubbing brush has plenty of handmade, knitted or crochet variations nowadays, made of cloth scraps, hemp or cotton. All of these are reusable, biodegradable, durable, washable and breathable, making it one of the best zero waste kitchen, bathroom and shower sponge options, especially when made of organic and unbleached materials. Practical, ecological and hygienic, what more can we ask for.
Last, but not least, if you are only looking at wiping up spills, cleaning surfaces, such as tables, stoves or kitchen countertops, cut up old t-shirts or cloth scraps will surely do a nice job. And the best part is that they may still be recycled afterwards.